How Much Sugar Do We Eat? Sugar By Any Other Name Would Be As Sweet

Simple Table Sugar

  Last update November 11, 2021, article reviewed & updated multiple times since June 24, 2001.

  What You Need to Know

  • Yearly consumption of sugar in the United States was no more than about ten pounds per person, in the early 1800s.
  • That figure is now estimated at 152 pounds per year.
  • Today, sugar-making involves high technology. The juice is boiled with chemicals to coagulate the impurities. It is boiled, washed, boiled again, and the dried in rotating vats.

How Much Sugar Do We Eat?

There is another small subject concerning carbohydrates that needs to be addressed before we move on to discussing protein. What about all the forms of actual sugar? Are they different? Is it safer/better to eat certain ones? Well-meaning friends and relatives often say, “But, this is made with a ‘special’ sugar that has vitamins and minerals! It is good for you.” Do you know what to tell them? No? Well, then read on.

Yearly consumption of sugar in the United States was no more than about ten pounds per person, in the early 1800s. The US Department of Agriculture reported that this had risen to some 118 pounds of sugar per year by 1975, to 127 pounds per year by 1987, and to 152 pounds per person every year by 1996!

In 2001, sugar consumption was approaching 170 pounds or more. Even though that figure has dropped over the last 20 years (now estimated at 152 pounds per year. Propaganda groups that are paid to promote excess sugar consumption try to tell Americans that we only average 57 pounds each per year – but they are paid to get you to eat more sugar!

A generous proportion of this sugar is concealed in processed foods, often in non-dessert items such as soups, salad dressings, condiments such as steak sauce and BBQ sauce, cured meats such as ham and bacon, and even in table salt. Furthermore, since many of us who follow low carb eat virtually no sugar at all, some people are eating a whole lot more than the average amount!

We have already talked about how sugar, almost alone among foods commonly eaten in the Western Diet, is essentially a ‘pure’ substance: sucrose without any additives. It is, of course, mixed into all manner of things, but it digests into two simple sugars via only one water-related step. But, is this equally true of all forms of sugar? And where does sugar come from, anyway?

A Little History Lesson

In 1597, an Englishman named John Gerard wrote home to England about sugar cane. “It is a pleasant and profitable reed. The Cane it selfe, or stalke is not hollow as the other Canes or Reeds are, but full, and stuffed with a spongeous substance in taste exceeding sweet.” (sic)

At that time, sugar was still a novelty in Europe. Although sugar cane, a very tall tropical grass that looks a bit like bamboo, was grown as early as 325 BC in India, it wasn’t grown in the Middle East until 500 or maybe 600 AD, and it didn’t come to Europe at all until Columbus’ second voyage in 1493. Additionally, there was no beet sugar anywhere in the world until the 18th century, and no general use of it until early in the 19th century.

Since chocolate comes from the New World, cocoa wasn’t known in Europe until after the discovery of the Americas. Neither coffee nor tea spread into wide usage among Europeans until the 1700s. But after those three drinks achieved popularity, there was a great demand for cheaper and more locally produced sweeteners. Cane sugar plants do not grow in Europe, and honey, although available, changes the taste of foods and beverages. Sugar was sought from another source.

Politics played a big part in the development of sugar throughout the world. A German chemist named Andreas Marggraf invented the first process for extracting sucrose from beets, but even so, the process did not come into general use until after 1811, when Napoleon commissioned French scientists to find a replacement for sugar cane sweetener because the British had cut off France’s sources of sugar from South America. Within a few years, Marggraf’s process was rediscovered and sugar processing plants began to spring up everywhere. By 1840, the beet sugar industry was flourishing in Europe.

Beet Sugar Versus Cane Sugar

Today, beet sugar makes up one-third to one-half of the sugar produced throughout the world. Sugar cane only grows in tropical regions and in areas of the southern states of the US, but sugar beets are more easily grown virtually everywhere else, as they are less demanding of hot weather.

Because the sweetener is processed down to pure sucrose, there is no essential difference in taste or usage between cane sugar and beet sugar, and they are generally used interchangeably, except by the rare person who might be allergic to one plant source, but not the other.

Originally, sugar cane was crushed, pressed, and boiled to extract the juice. The resulting dark brown, coarse sugar was formed into loaves or pressed into containers. By the 1800s, the sugar cane juice was being boiled with egg whites or animal blood. The proteins in the egg or blood coagulated, separating out impurities from the juice. It was then boiled down to a thick syrup and allowed to dry.

Today, sugar-making involves high technology. The juice is boiled with chemicals to coagulate the impurities. It is boiled, washed, boiled again, and the dried in rotating vats. Whereas the crude sugar loaves of yesteryear included some nutrients, a few vitamins and minerals, and some more complex sugars, due to the extensive processing, modern sugar is ultra-pure sucrose.

The Forms Of Sugar

Brown Sugar

Brown sugar is made by leaving a thin film of molasses on each grain of sugar, either by not washing the sugar crystals that are produced along the process towards white sugar, or by adding molasses back into finished, refined white sugar. This changes the texture and taste of the sugar, but it does not change the carbohydrate or calorie count. Brown sugar is not any more healthful than refined white sugar.

Muscovado Sugar

This is a British specialty sugar that is coarser and grainier than American brown sugar. It is made in a similar manner to brown sugar, and tastes more pungently of molasses. But it still has the same amount of carbohydrates as white sugar, and it is not any more healthful than refined white sugar.

Turbinado Sugar

This is also called Washed Raw Sugar. The crystals are larger than regular white sugar, and it is more blonde in color due to a smaller amount of molasses. It is not healthier than white sugar.

Demerara Sugar

This is an English version of turbinado sugar. It settles to the bottom of the beverage cup, and dissolves more slowly. It has the same amount of carbohydrates as regular sugar, and it is not more healthful in any way.

Piloncillo, Panocha, Panela, and Jaggery

The first three of these (piloncillo, and panocha, panela) are cones or loaves of Latin American sugars. Jaggery is an East Indian sugar that is sold is chunks. These sugars are virtually the same product as what was made 2500 years ago from cane sugar when it was crushed, pressed, and boiled to extract the juice. The resulting dark brown, coarse sugar was, and it is today, formed into cones, loaves, or pressed into containers. These sugars are rich in molasses and resemble brown sugar. Although there may be a few minerals and vitamins still left, they are primarily the same stuff – sugar.

Superfine Sugar

This is also called caster or castor sugar. It is merely a matter of how small the crystals have been made. Regular sugar can be made into ‘superfine’ by running it through a blender for a short while.

Powdered Sugar

This is also called confectioners’ sugar or icing sugar, and it is the same as regular sugar, except it is ground up more thoroughly than superfine sugar. It may actually be higher in carbohydrates than regular sugar because cornstarch is added to prevent caking, thus making it less sweet, and requiring slightly more to attain the same amount of sweetening.

Sugar Cubes

This is regular sugar that is pressed with a slight amount of light sugar syrup to make it hold together.

Flavored Sugar

Vanilla sugar is an example of this. It is simply regular sugar with vanilla bean in it to add flavoring.

Decorating Sugar

This is coarse, regular sugar that is sprayed with food coloring to make it pretty on cookies, cakes, or confections.

So There We Have It: Sugar Is Sugar Is Sugar

Sugar in any form is still sugar.

Unfortunately, It is not easy to replace sugar when cooking because it has properties that are hard to duplicate. Sugar softens proteins, and it also acts as a preservative in some foods. Additionally, since sugar forms a different-sized crystal under different heating conditions, it allows for many different forms of the finished product, from hard candy to soft fudge.

Heat-stable sugar substitutes, such as Splenda, add the sweetness without adding usable carbohydrates, but they don’t duplicate the action of sugar. That is one of the reasons why the manufacturers add other sugars, such as maltodextrin, to the various artificial sweeteners. Those of us who leave sugar out of our diets simply have to learn to live without the properties that sugar provides.

This is not a burden. We also live without the harmful effects that sugar provides.

Please join me next time when we will begin our discussion of proteins.

The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets
    The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets

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  • This article is number 6 of 24 articles describing The Science of Low-Carb & Keto Diets. Visit this link or click the above image for all of the articles in the series.
Article History

  • Last Update November 10, 2021
  • Updated January 15, 2018
  • Updated May 30, 2010
  • Updated August 7, 2003
  • Original Article June 24, 2001
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About Dr. Beth Gruber
Dr. Gruber is a graduate of the Southern California University of Health Sciences and has been in private chiropractic practice in Long Beach, California since 1964. She also received both a Bachelor’s Degree and a Master’s Degree from California State University at Long Beach. She has written on health-related subjects for over 30 years, for several different publications. She lives in Southern California with her husband of 33 years. Both she and her husband follow and live the low-carb lifestyle full time.

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